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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Cohen: NC Coronavirus Numbers Stabilizing, Masks Have Helped

Mandy Cohen
NC Department of Public Safety
Mandy Cohen, pictured here in a press conference Tuesday, says coronavirus numbers declined about 2-3 weeks after a statewide face mask mandate went into effect.

North Carolina health officials reported more than 1,900 new coronavirus cases Friday, and 21 additional deaths were attributed to COVID-19 as hospitalizations were down slightly. In June, Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, said she was concerned the numbers were going in the wrong direction. But in an interview Friday, she was more optimistic.

Mandy Cohen: Over the last 10 days, 14 days, we've actually seen cases start to stabilize, start to level. They're not going down yet, which is obviously what we prefer. But they are leveling. So that's our first really good sign that we are starting to maybe see a true slowing of the spread of the virus.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Several days, though, this month, there have been over 2,000 (cases).

Cohen: Again, that's why we watch these numbers over a period of time. We definitely need to see a decline. We cannot stabilize at this high of a rate, because what we are seeing is that this high rate of new cases day over day is still straining our response resources. Whether that's our testing resources, our tracing resources or our hospital resources.

But the good news about hospitalization is we do have hospital capacity. We have really good dialogue and communication with all of our hospitals. But what I want folks to hear is that I think the "three W's" are working. I think we can tie directly back to the fact when the governor at the end of June instituted the statewide mask requirement, 2-3 weeks after that, we started to see this improvement. And again, it's not perfect, but it's the start of a trend.

Glenn: One thing that I have heard people asking is why give the "out" where the governor's executive order, if I'm correct, says, "wear a mask unless it is possible to socially distance." Some states have tightened up on their mask mandates, saying you have to wear them all the time.

Cohen: Our guidance is that folks should be wearing face coverings or masks anytime they're in public settings. And there are some exceptions to that when folks have some medical reasons not to be. But our guidance from DHHS is to be wearing those in public settings. Now, on the enforcement side, the onus is on our business community to do it, in terms of who would have a penalty, if you will. You know, and I think that that is important because we wanted to make sure that this wasn't about cracking down on any one individual or individual communities.

Glenn: Are businesses being cited for allowing people in without mask? You hear businesses say, "Oh, I don't want to put my employees at risk." But if someone is stealing from a store, they have security. Why not in terms of masks?

Cohen: So, what we're seeing is those large chain organizations, particularly one who would have security, they are instituting those requirements, not just as a statewide corporate policy, but a national corporate policy. And I think that's really positive. There's been some recent surveys about people wearing face coverings across the nation, and they did it here in North Carolina, and it showed that 80% of people are always wearing face coverings in public in most of our communities. And that's great.

Glenn: Let's move to what's happening in South Carolina. Because South Carolina, of course, is just down the street from Charlotte and they are reopening all of the businesses there. Are you concerned about the effect that could have on the state?

Cohen: Well, we know viruses don't respect borders of any sort. So I am concerned when others around us are not taking that slow and cautious approach to easing of restrictions. I think North Carolina has been very thoughtful about doing that. And I think it is shown in our numbers in terms of us not seeing surges of cases. Unfortunately, they are seeing that in South Carolina. Obviously, we can't change how South Carolina's implementing their policies, but we can ask our North Carolinians to take care.

Glenn: OK. Well, let's look at federal dollars and federal help for the state. Is the federal government providing the state with what you need in terms of testing sites, in terms of lab supplies?

Cohen: I've talked many times about need for some additional federal support, particularly around testing. I think that they are stepping up in certain ways in recent days and weeks. I think we are still having supply-chain issues for some of our hospital labs that are not able to turn around tests as much as they would want. If they had more reagents and supplies for their labs, they would do more. So we have filled those gaps at the state level. So we have surged our testing capacity from the state level. So I feel good about where we are in terms of our testing sites. But what we need to make sure is that those tests come back in a timely manner and to work with folks to make sure the supplies are there to allow that to happen.

Glenn: Is shutdown something that you guys are looking at possibly? Or going back to Phase 1?

Cohen: Well, it's always a possibility that we would have to go backwards. That's why we monitor our trends so closely. It's why, as well, we put that that information on our website every single day. I go through it with the press every week. We don't want to overwhelm our health care system, but we have also said it is possible that we could take a regional approach. As we look at our numbers right now, our numbers don't support a regional approach, and we've been taking a statewide approach to restrictions. But we'll continue to monitor our trends.

Glenn: In making those decisions, with the governor up for reelection, how do you respond to people who wonder if politics are playing a role in the decisions that are being made?

Cohen: Politics have no role in pandemic response. We have to be governed by the data and the science and the evidence. And I think we're going to look at our numbers. We're going to look at the science. We're going to do what we need to to protect the people of North Carolina and make sure that we are thinking about public health. We will keep doing that.

Glenn: And finally, being you are out there every day, you are in the press conferences, you're often doing interviews like this ... How are you doing?

Cohen: Thank you for that. I will say, look, it is an incredibly challenging time, but it is an honor to serve. I feel genuinely lucky that the universe put me in this place at this time. I have a medical background, I have a public health background, I've been in leadership roles at the federal government and the state level. And so I hope that my experience in the past can help us through this difficult time in North Carolina. And I'm honored to work for a governor that is so true to the science and the evidence and that we've been working through this hard problem together and I think that we've done so successfully.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.